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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights reserved.
On Nature’s Trail at Bowman’s
Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is a moveable feast.
Not that the Preserve — on Route 32, just south of New Hope —
itself moves. But that the flowers which are its stars dance across
this woodland to a riveting seasonal choreography. And no time is
more electrifying at Bowman’s than during the changeable days of spring.
Scheduled flower events are imminent: Saturday and Sunday, May 13
and 14, will see the annual sale of nursery propagated plants. Regulars
know that strong and special blooms are arrayed, ready to transform
home gardens. A list of plants is on the preserve website at www.bhwp.org.
Guided wildflower tours and bird walks are offered year-round for
a small charge, and there is an active lecture schedule. Comfortable
shoes, weather gear, water, long sleeves, and long pants tucked in
socks (to guard against Lyme disease) are urged for outdoor activities.
Only about 45 minutes from Princeton’s Route 1, the refuge rests below
the Italianate Bowman’s Tower commemorating the first Battle of Trenton.
You’ll be George Washington-in-reverse, crossing the Delaware to attain
your objective: Bowman’s "Spring Ephemerals" and their successors.
These are the blooms that hurry into glory and depart before the forest
canopy leafs out.
Established in 1934 to preserve Pennsylvania’s native flora, Bowman’s
is open daily, dawn-to-dusk, and free to all comers. The Twinleaf
Shop is chock-full of flowered objects and a bookshop specializing
in books about green and other growing things. Volunteer staff provide
free trail maps, flower lists, and enthusiasm for blooms to hunt along
the well- marked trails.
A meeting space for Bowman’s Preserve’s educational
programs is adjacent to Twinleaf, with wildlife exhibits not limited
to the rooted variety. Stuffed local critters spin from the rafters.
Beyond tall windows, overflowing birdfeeders provide the opportunity
to check the glow of the goldfinches’ breeding plumage. Printed matter
makes it easy for visitors to learn about the role of wildflowers
in the home garden, invasive aliens (such as the inescapable purple
loosestrife and wild garlic), medicinal properties of common flowers,
Indian lore, program and field trip schedules, and volunteer opportunities.
Bulletin boards outside the shop and at the woods’ entrance are updated
with color portraits of current blossoms and wildlife. This is where
Bowman’s truly hits its stride — the preserve as self-guiding
classroom. It has taught me everything I know about wildflowers.
The beauty of Bowman’s for beginners is that the area is mostly flat.
Trails are well named and well tended, so clear that no blazes are
required. You can wear your hiking boots for kicks, but you’ll probably
admit they’re a conceit here. Many short trails circle away from and
back to the central roadway, like petals on a daisy. Less than ambulatory
individuals can trace a few of these trails and then hang out on a
handy bench tucked among azaleas or underlooking the 1930s-era stone
bridge over Pidcock Creek.
I’m frankly prejudiced when I insist you can skip a visit to the tower.
It’s a long and boring uphill climb. Better to take Medicinal Trail
or Violet or Wild Azalea coming and going.
The earliest sign of spring at Bowman’s Hill is the Skunk Cabbage.
It emerges waxen and red-brown, pointed as cowled Franciscan monks.
Exothermic, this hardy plant can melt January ice. Scientists have
taken its temperature, reporting 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I have poked
chilled fingers inside to no such effect. With sun and warmth, these
ruddy forms expand to Kelly green cabbages, growing to bushel-basket
size before wilting away. Of course, there’s no picking permitted
here, but anyone who has picked one, anywhere, can attest to the skunk’s
signature pungency. Native Americans wrapped fish or game birds in
the large leaves, tucking them into campfire ashes to roast. I always
wish I had been a guest at such a dinner.
Bowman’s early ephemerals include the Snow Trillium, an exquisite
white lily of a unexpected hardiness rising from a trio of waxy leaves.
They will be joined, later on, by relatives of other colors, found
along the Medicinal Trail. These include the enticing Painted Trillium,
whose ruddy center is actually an ultraviolet trail for pollinators.
The hearty red ones are in their glory now, fringed or solid, mimicking
the hue of black wine of Cahors.
Other floral early-birds are Spring Beauties and the rarer Rue Anemone.
Spring Beauties erupt between slender grass-like leaves. Their white
upturned bells look as though wood sprites had painted a single pink
peppermint strip down each silken petal.
Spring Beauties, like this viewer, furl in chill wind or too little
light. So you’ll find them at their best mid-day. Rue Anemone shares
the same color combination, but stand taller on their stems, the delicate
blooms fanning out above a wreath of soft green rounded leaflets.
(I find the best wildflower books have color-coded corners where,
for example, all pink blooms are clustered for comparison.)
Along the creek, for they love "wet feet," spread mile on
mile of Bowman’s crowning glories — the Bluebells. Colors range
from baby blanket blue through lilac to mauve and magenta. Here and
there, in the limitless array, some stark-white albinos startle. The
first time I came over the crest to this floral bounty, I was struck
numb as when this Midwesterner first encountered the sea. Wordsworth
can have his "host of golden daffodils." I’ll take Bowman’s
Bluebells, "fluttering and dancing in the breeze," here and
there accented by the golden Greater Celandine.
Lacy short round leaves, like certain scented geraniums, but shorter
and far more fragile, reveal shady hollows where Dutchman’s Britches
linger. These amusing ivory "bloomers" (in the naughty, Victorian
sense of the word), hang out along a needle-thin stem, as if some
sturdy housewife had hung them out to dry.
The prize for prettiest flower with ugliest name goes to Cut-leafed
Toothwort. "Wort" is a Celtic or Druidic word for a healing
plant, as we know from the recent international popularity of St.
John’s Wort. (This remedy, however, is not a Bowman’s native.) Pink
and white as Spring Beauties, Cut-leafed Toothwort stands tall and
delicately proud, the Maria Tallchief of wildflowers. Their approximately
five-inch stems are surrounded by leaves that look as though a mad
sawyer had let loose in the woodland. Again geranium-like, but narrower
and more profuse, the leaves have done a disservice to the blossom.
Most unexpected along the Tower Road is a stand of Prickly Pear cactus,
all ruddy and bitter green and shriveled. Even so, something winey
— that could be fruit, could be flower — emerges as the spiky
paddles right themselves. I had always suspected that some misguided
garden-type planted these. But just this month I found them running
wild among the red foxes along the Spizzle Creek Trail at Island Beach
To the left of Marsh Marigold Trail, on your way back down to the
bridge, if you’re very lucky or very good or both, golden Lady’s Slippers
will rear their rare and bulbous blooms. Suspended on slim stems nearly
a foot tall, these golden slippers would grace any Cinderella. Very
occasionally, they are accompanied by a rosy variety, which convince
you that they are, indeed, orchid relatives.
The birder in me has been silent long enough. It was at Bowman’s that
I first heard the scree of the red-tailed hawk circling high above
Fern Trail. At Bowman’s I located by an incessant, almost purring,
sound, my first red-bellied woodpecker, forming its nest hole. And
this is where my first (and only) ruby-crowned kinglet perched practically
on my fingertips in a green spring glade. Petite, endearing, merry
(it’s said that only the male is so crowned and that he only glows
red when excited), the kinglet was an eminent addition to my birder’s
"life list" in 1999.
Bowman’s Hill is a feast in any season. Keep it in mind whenever senses
need a lift. The silence in snow is miraculous; just as the abundance
of spring is restorative. The lushness of summer and the spiciness
of fall are always ready to serve as antidotes to civilization. Bowman’s
lofty and evocative hemlock grove is "worthy of a detour"
(in Michelin terms) in any season. And, like the nearby Sourland Mountain
Preserve outside Hopewell, the denseness of these woods keeps them
relatively cool even in the 90-degree days of summer. Speaking from
experience, take double your usual water supply.
While no means a complete list of Bowman’s floral possibilities, how
could I leave out the deep purple shooting stars of early summer,
spiking the air with intensity on the rising trail from where the
bluebells ring to the base of the visitor’s center? Or the congregations
of Jack-in-the-Pulpits, preaching the only sermons I’m interested
in hearing? Or drifts of golden Alexander alongside a weathered fence?
Or spice bush erupting in wild chartreuse frills along what looks
like deadwood? Dogwood and azalea running wild at crossroads? Here
persistent ruddy Columbine stud gray rocks and crimson honeysuckle
vines wreath the parking lot.
You can’t go wrong at Bowman’s; just pick your day and see what shows
up. It could be frogs beside the river or in Fern Trail’s pond. Peepers
unseen but not unheard, sounding like jingle bells or fax machines,
depending on your paradigm. Deer peer in from outside the towering,
extensive and expensive, new fencing built to protect the plant life.
Grass snakes claim a mossy stump. Turtles sun on pond rocks beneath
unfurling fiddlehead ferns.
Maybe I’ll give it to Wordsworth after all. Never mind what sort
of blooms (and, yes, Bowman’s has a few daffodil clusters of its own),
the ephemerals of Bowman’s fill a day, and then fill memory, "with
the bliss of solitude."
— Carolyn Foote Edelmann
215-862-2924. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission, with
a small charge for guided walks, offered daily at 2 p.m., and for
programs. Website: www.bhwp.org. The Spring Native Plant Sale features
nursery-propagated wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees for the home
garden. Saturday & Sunday, May 13 & 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
May 14, 2 p.m. $3 individual; $5 per family.
azaleas, laurels, and viburnums now in season. Preregister, $10. Saturday,
May 27, 10 a.m.
to Lambertville. At Lambertville, cross into New Hope via Bridge Street.
Turn left at the New Hope signal and go south on Route 32 (River Road)
for less than three miles to Bowman’s Hill; entrance is on your right.
south of New Hope; visitors are advised to adjust their driving plans
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